Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Providing Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services for Students with ASD


Gregory A. Cheatham is a Research Assistant in the Department of Special Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois.

We have many families and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in special education programs today. With the recognition of their unique strengths and needs, school professionals should provide these students and families with appropriate special education services. In this article, challenges and opportunities in meeting the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students and families are discussed. The approach presented here is designed for students and families from a variety of backgrounds and students with a variety of disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).


Collaboration is a critical component of providing appropriate services to children with ASD and can be challenging for professionals and families. Professionals working with culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families may need to consider parents’ and students’ first and second language proficiency, understandings of the special education system, and culture-based perceptions of appropriate educational services and of disabilities (Harry, 1992).

Studies suggest that diverse parents of students with special needs may have strong opinions regarding their interactions with special education professionals. For example, Harry, Allen, and McLaughlin (1995) found that some parents felt that their input was not valued, time and scheduling were limited, paperwork was emphasized over collaboration, professional communication was not easily understood, and parents were not placed on an equal footing with school professionals. These perceptions resulted in parent discomfort and parents feeling unable to influence their children’s education. Such perceptions can also make trusting, reciprocal relationships challenging and result in parent withdrawal from meaningful involvement in their children’s education (Rao, 2000). This lack of involvement can be particularly problematic given the need for parent-professional partnerships and planning for students with ASD.

Some parents may come to the collaboration table with very different perspectives than school staff about disability, the child’s behavior, and educational approaches. For example, families from a culture in which members tend to view disability as a stigma may react differently to special education professionals and students’ educational interventions than families who view disability more neutrally (Lynch, 1998a). Moreover, many diverse families foster interdependence to a greater degree than mainstream families such that family members maintain a sense of reliance on each other (Lynch, 1998b). As Lynch notes, while special education services may focus on independence skills, some diverse families may not emphasize these same skills at home due to their cultural beliefs about parenting. Consequently, some families may continue to help their children with skills such as feeding or organizing homework materials beyond the time where school professionals believe support is necessary or appropriate. Assessing and addressing family priorities is critical to working with students with disabilities who come from diverse backgrounds (Lynch, 1998a).

In addition, there are challenges to working with culturally and linguistically diverse students with ASD. As Cheatham and Santos (2005) note, children come to school possessing culture-based behaviors, communication routines, and perspectives that may sometimes seem at odds with mainstream classrooms. For example, in some families cleaning up is more often completed by girls than boys. Consequently, some boys may be more reluctant to clean-up and may engage in challenging behaviors to avoid this task. Similarly, some children may interact in ways considered “inappropriate” or “odd” to mainstream peers and adults, though the behaviors are not inherently “wrong.” For instance, the ways students use eye contact, take turns in conversations, and respond to physical touch can be influenced by culture (Lynch, 1998b). Moreover, because of differences in culture-based verbal and non-verbal behavior, some children may have difficulty reading mainstream adults’ and peers’ social-pragmatic cues, such as cues to take a turn during an activity.


Special education professionals have an obligation and privilege to develop collaborative relationships and intervention strategies that are effective, responsive, and in the best interests of diverse students and families. These suggestions may help professionals in that process:

  • Learn about the characteristics of ASD exhibited at home and at school by the individual child through discussions with school professionals (e.g., school social workers, school psychologists), the child’s family, and other information sources (e.g., Web sites, the DSM-IV).
  • Develop cultural self-awareness and become aware of cultural biases. Professionals can examine their family history, religious background, and socio-economic status through culture questionnaires (e.g., Lynch & Hanson, 2004) and determine how these may impact judgments about, for example, disciplining techniques, turn-taking, or the comfortable distance between two speakers (Lynch, 1998b).
  • Develop an understanding of the family’s culture (Lynch, 1998b) (e.g., have the family or student draw a family tree; discuss family adherence to specific culture traits, such as perceptions of disabilities), read about the family’s culture (e.g., Lynch & Hanson, 2004), and gather information through cultural informants.
  • Talk with the student’s family about specific behaviors and skills that are challenging to them and that their children may need to learn (e.g., ask parents whether the student’s reluctance to hug is problematic to family members).
  • For bilingual families, talk with parents about the family’s home language (e.g., discuss family language use, language preferences, and potential impacts of using one language rather than another or two languages) (Cheatham, Santos & Ro, 2007).
  • Talk with families about the ways in which the family’s behavioral expectations impact children’s behavior at school (e.g., ask families if it is problematic when their child lines up toys at home to decide if and how this should be addressed at school).
  • With family input and participation, instruct students in new behaviors and skills. Teachers may need to emphasize that some behaviors are more appropriate at home, some at school, and others appropriate in both locations (e.g., some students may be able to learn that direct eye contact is not appropriate between parent and child though it is acceptable between peers at school).


Education professionals working with culturally and linguistically diverse families and their children encounter challenges as well as wonderful opportunities. Building partnerships with students and families can form a basis of determining appropriate interventions for students with ASD and their families.


  • Cheatham, G. A., & Santos, R. M. (2005). A-B-C’s of bridging home and school expectations for children and families of diverse backgrounds. Young Exceptional Children, 8, 3–11.

  • Cheatham, G. A., Santos, R. M., & Ro, Y. S. (2007). Home language acquisition and retention for young exceptional children. Manuscript submitted for publication.

  • Harry, B. (1992). Cultural diversity, families, and the special education system: Communication and empowerment. New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Harry, B., Allen, N., & McLaughlin, M. (1995). Communication versus compliance: African-American parents’ involvement in special education. Exceptional Children, 61, 364–377.

  • Lynch, E. W. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence. In E. W. Lynch & M. J. Hanson (Eds.), Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families (pp. 47–89). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

  • Lynch, E. W. (n.d.). Conceptual framework: From culture shock to cultural learning. In E. W. Lynch & M. J. Hanson (Eds.), Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families (pp. 23–45). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

  • Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

  • Rao, S. S. (2000). Perspectives of an African-American mother on parent-professional relationships in special education. Mental Retardation, 38, 475–488.